Saturday, November 28, 2009

Yixing Zen: The Story of That Yixing Pot

Ten thousand Dharmas return to one.
What does one return to?

A couple of years ago, a Korean teamaster had brought back three pots that were almost identical. All three pots had an image of bamboo grass on the side. One of the three which had “Tea and Zen are not two but one” inscribed on the other side in classical Chinese calligraphy broke during use. One of the pots which had some famous Taoist saying inscribed on it is still in use by the teamaster. The last was gifted as one was about to depart from Korea, it is the pot pictured in this blog.

This pot is a real piece of Zen. It was produced a few years ago by a popular yixing company called “Gum Sa Do Yae”. In 2007 the company stopped production after two of its now-famous potters, Yu Ji Mung and Yang Lim Beup, left to open their own kilns. Since that time both of these artists have gained fame and notoriety for their marvelous yixing pots produced from their independent kilns. Their works are stunning in their simplicity and wondrous in their form. They often fetch prices in the thousands of dollar range.

Undoubtedly, these potters have skill. Some, such as the teamaster who gave one this pot, attributes their abilities to their indirect training in Zen.

When Yu Ji Mung and Yang Lim Beup were working for Gum Sa Do Yae they were hand-making hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands and thousands, of pots. These pots were virtually all the same and looked almost identical as the one pictured above. They were pumping out so many of the same pots day in and day out that they developed a sort of mindlessness, a true spontaneity about it. This repetitious, joyfully mindless state of work is said to embody the precepts of zen.

This is the way of tea, the way that Korean potters mindlessly toiled hundreds of years before in the mountain kilns- alone with the rhythms of nature and an abundance of repetitious work. As a result of such conditions, works that were detached from conceptual deliberate thought were produced- pieces of zen.

Often the pottery created in this state was finished in a flash of zen, a gye yal (Eng:brushmark, Jap: Hakeme) or spontaneous calligraphy quoting a famous Zen phrase or Taoist quote. When the Japanese first caught sight of the work of these Korean potters they attempted to re-create their style, but were unsuccessful because their actions were too deliberate and steeped in conceptual thought. As a result they kidnapped many of these Korean potters and forced them to produce such works in Japan.
Just like the Koreans hundreds of years before, Yu Ji Mung & Yang Lim Beup also left a spontaneous mark on their Gum Sa Do Yae pots. On the side of the pot that faced the guest an image of bamboo was engraved. On the side that faced the tea maker was a spontaneous quote, likely just whatever came to mind, their empty mind, when finishing the pot.
This pot is a wonderful example of such zen...

Its size, like all of its identical siblings, is medium-largish for a yixing but can still fit in ones palm nicely. Although a touch large, it stands staunch and strong, as if in seating mediation.

The layout of its calligraphy attempts of minimize its enormity and harmonizes the piece. The calligraphy and engraving stretches the pot horizontally. The engraving of bamboo is centered more towards the spout. It looks as if it is blowing slowly in the wind and fills up as it moves more toward the short spout- creating a perfect balance with the handle on the opposite side. The placement of the calligraphy on the other side is placed closer to the handle side. It still manages to harmonize with the handle though by the use of vertical calligraphy near the spout side- absolutely brilliant. The placement of the engraving and calligraphy suggest that these pots should be placed with the spout at 10-11 o'clock. This is part of common tea etiquette as a spout pointed directly at the guest is seen as a rude act. Besides this, the natural placement of the pot at 10-11 o'clock reduces the length of this pot went viewed from directly in front or behind, adding even more balance.

The bamboo engraving is natural and beautiful. Bamboo often represents simplicity. Besides that, it is so common, it bears neither fruit not flower yet stands strong due to its empty form inside. In this way bamboo represents the zen mind- strong in its emptiness and simplicity.

The calligraphy on the other side is read right to left. The larger horizontal section translates to “Ten thousand Dharmas return to one”. Where “ten thousand” refers to an infinite number, “Dharmas” refer to all phenomena or all things, and “one” refers to the nature of all things.

The whole phrase is a famous Zen Koan from case 45 of the Blue Cliff Record . This record chronicles seemlying nonsensical dialogues and exchanges among famous Chan monks that often starled zen practitioners into achieving enlightenment- breaking thought their meditation and attaining “no-mind'.

The vertical calligraphy is the date this pot was made using the traditional Chinese astrological calendar. A statement on presence. A mark of spontaneity. (If anyone can translate the date, please let us know).

A pot of this size must be sturdy and solid. This is achieved by wonderful, thick clay that shines with the essence of tea in its pores. It is fairly sturdy when pouring and pours fast and strong.

Its flat lid, like the layout of the engraving, attempts of minimize its enormity. Lifting it off the top one can sense its sturdiness.

The chops on the underside of the pot, lid and handle also nicely balance this pot.

When steam rises from this pot one is at peace.

A novice monk asked Zen Master Zhao Zhou, “Ten thousand Dharmas return to one. What does one return to?”

Zhao Zhou immediately responds, “I was once in Qing Province and made a piece of clothing: a hemp jacket weighing seven pounds.”



Brett said...

i'm speechless. your stunning photos and flowing prose really brought this teapot to life. kudos.

Matt said...



Truly its nature can only be captured with tea in its belly.

A gallant effort none the less.


Matt said...


Perhaps if you are speechless. Its true nature has been revealed.

Double Peace

Bret said...

That is indeed a beautiful pot, can I have it? Please?

Matt said...


In everyday life, if someone asks if they can have some possession of mine I immediately give it- this is how one cultures a compassionate mind.

I have very few things. This is only one of only two yixing pots in ones possession, the other is a small pot, this a larger pot.

A while back one decided that one best not extend this to those who make comments on the blog otherwise one would probably be drinking out of an old mug, with leaves floating on top by now!

In some ways, there is a lot more zen in drinking tea like that than in drinking from this pot.


Bret said...

Matt, I was just joking. I wouldn't really expect anybody to just give away something so precious.

Bret said...

Oh yeah, I keep meaning to ask you (but I always forget) about the square tray you use as a tea tray. Ive never seen anything like that before and am curious. Is it,s original purpose to be used as a tea tray? And there appears to be a compartment underneath. Maybe someday when you have the time you could let us see more pics of this intriguing tray?

Matt said...


Sometime soon there should be a post on the Korean tea set up one has and the meaning, symbolism, and harmony behind it.

Until then check out the link on the table (or 'tray') here:

And the waste water bowl beneath it here:


Matt said...

The link below is a discussion on famous case 45 of the Blue Cliff Record by one of the most prominant Korean zen masters of the past century: